Preseason brings a new year for NFL teams to get it right

Aug 7, 2018 3:01 AM

With Baltimore’s 17-16 win over Chicago in last Thursday’s Hall of Fame Game the 2018 NFL season is officially underway. At least the preseason part of it.

Beginning this Thursday the 32 teams will have four opportunities to prepare for the start of the regular NFL season that begins in a month with defending Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia hosting Atlanta on Thursday, Sept. 6.

The NFL refers to these as “preseason,” disdaining the more commonly applied moniker of “exhibition” games. Coaches will never admit they are not trying to win a game but these August games are different.

Betting these games can be profitable for those who partake. Coaches will be as honest as they will be at any time of the next six months as to what will be emphasized and implemented during these games that do not count in the standings. There are bettors who fare extremely well in betting preseason.

Here’s an early glance.

AFC East

Still the Gladys Knight and the Pips Division with Buffalo, Miami and the New York Jets playing the roles of the three Pips. For nearly two full decades the Division has been dominated by the New England Patriots with the combination of coach Bill Belichick and QB Tom Brady leading the Pats to eight Super Bowl appearances, winning five times.

New England remains the team to beat after representing the AFC in the past two Super Bowls. They are prohibitive 1 to 7 favorites to win yet another Division title (lay 700 to win 100) and at 6-1 are the only team with single digit odds to win Super Bowl 53. The last time New England won fewer than 10 games was 16 seasons ago when they went 9-7 in 2002. Their projected Wins Total is 11.

There is little to separate the other three AFC East teams with Buffalo, Miami and the Jets each held at 6 or 6.5 projected wins. Buffalo and the Jets each drafted quarterbacks in the first round who will battle veterans in training camp for the right to start on Opening Day. Miami’s QB situation is not in any better shape with Ryan Tannehill returning from having missed all of last season to hold off a challenge by the well-traveled and largely disappointing Brock Osweiler for the starting role.

Combined with the results over the past decade it is hard to envision any of the three posting a winning record or even an 8-8 season, including Buffalo which went 9-7 last season, making the Playoffs for the first time since 1999 and then trading starting QB Tyrod Taylor to Cleveland in the offseason.

AFC North

Pittsburgh has long been the dominant team in this Division. Baltimore has been slipping since winning Super Bowl 47 following the 2012 season. Long forlorn Cincinnati made the Playoffs in five straight seasons (all “one and dones”) before posting losing records the past two seasons. Cleveland can only show improvement after going winless last season to stand 1-31 in Hue Jackson’s two seasons as coach. Not only that, the Browns posted identical 4-12 pointspread records in each season.

Pittsburgh is an odds-on 5 to 14 favorite to win the Division with a projected Season Wins Total of 10.5. The Steelers were 13-3 last season. Coach Mike Tomlin is in his twelfth season as head coach and has led his team to the Playoffs seven times, including each of the past four seasons. QB Ben Roethlisberger is a future Hall of Famer as his career starts to wind down. Whereas the defense has not been as formidable in recent seasons as it has been, historically the offense has been a major strength.

Baltimore is projected to fare slightly better than Cincinnati this season and the Ravens do rate the edge in several areas, including head coach John Harbaugh. The QB situation is iffy with Joe Flacco to be challenged by rookie Lamar Jackson and injury plagued veteran Robert Griffin III.

Cincinnati is poised to show improvement after a pair of down seasons although QB Andy Dalton is still plagued by his inability to win the big game. Baltimore’s defense was better overall and better balanced than Cincinnati’s and the Ravens are more likely to contend for a Playoff spot this season but still have too much ground to make up to catch the Steelers.

Cleveland can only go up after their winless 2017 but how much progress the Browns will make is subject to debate. Their Season Wins Total of 5.5 is considered way too optimistic by many yet others say the roster has the talent of a team capable of making the Playoffs. My approach will be to wait and see although their first four games should give an indication as to how bettable the Browns may be over the rest of the season.

AFC South

With a projected Season Wins Total of 9 Jacksonville is considered the best team in the Division although that is the lowest Wins Total of any of the eight projected Division winners. The Jags are 7 to 5 favorites to win the Division with Houston next at 9 to 5 (and 8.5 projected wins). It is worth noting last season’s trip to the Playoffs was Jacksonville’s first since 2007 so a regression might be in store. But the talent and organization is in place to reduce that possibility.

The Texans are led by dynamic QB Deshaun Watson and a defense led by J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus, all of whom were injured and missed more than half of last season. Both teams figure to contend for the Division title and berths in the Playoffs and, barring key August injuries, will enter the season stronger at the start of this season than they were at the start of last.

There is a significant gap between the Jacksonville and Houston duo and the duo of Indianapolis and Tennessee. Both teams have rookie head coaches, which suggests there will be a learning curve. That often results in such teams struggling over their first eight games but making for attractive bets over the latter half of the season.

QB Andrew Luck gives the Colts the better chance of early success if he is as healthy as has been claimed and as he has looked thus far in training camp. Indy’s defense was awful last season but how much of that was due to the pressure put upon that unit because of inadequate support from the offense could be answered early.

Tennessee might be more adversely affected than the Colts from having a first year head coach, considering the Titans were a Playoff team a season ago and thus the progress that was made could be partially reversed this season.

AFC West

The expected competitiveness of the Division is reflected in the Season Wins Totals with the Chargers at 9.5, Kansas City at 8.5, Oakland at 8 and Denver at 7.

The Chargers and Raiders have the two best quarterbacks with Phillip Rivers and Derek Carr, respectively. Kansas City traded accomplished starting QB to Washington to turn the offense over to second season QB Pat Mahomes while Denver seeks to cure its QB woes of the past few seasons with the signing of free agent Case Keenum, who led Minnesota to a 13-3 record followed by a Playoff win over New Orleans before losing the NFC Title game at Philadelphia in a 38-7 rout.

A pretty good case can be made for any of the four teams. Denver is attractive, as despite poor QB play the defense was elite, ranking third overall including fourth against the pass and fifth against the rush.

The Chiefs have been the most consistent team in the Division over the past five seasons, the coaching tenure of current coach Andy Reid. They’ve won between 9 and 12 games each season, earning two Division titles and two Wild Cards. After enjoying sustained success in his 14 years as head coach in Philadelphia, Reid took over a Chiefs team that went 2-14 in the season before his arrival.

The Chargers have been relatively consistent but to a lesser degree than KC, a consistency that was interrupted when they fell to four wins in 2015 and five in 2016 before bouncing back to nine wins last season, overcoming an 0-4 start. Between 2004 and 2014 the Chargers had just one losing season, 7-9 in 2012. Rivers is clearly the most accomplished QB in the Division (potentially a Hall of Famer) and the defense showed marked improvement last season despite the Chargers playing the role of nomads as they await the completion of the new Los Angeles stadium.

Oakland may be the most interesting team of all. After 13 straight losing seasons the Raiders went 12-4 in 2016 despite a statistical profile that suggested six or at most seven wins. Their stats were no better last season and they finished 6-10.

In comes former head coach Jon Gruden for a second chance at getting the Raiders to the Super Bowl, hopefully for Oakland fans prior to their 2020 move to Las Vegas. Whether Gruden can coax 12 wins out of this team (with more legitimate stats than in 2016) or do as best as he can with the talent that struggled to six. The answer is most likely somewhere in the middle.